Eco fashion has come a long way since the days of shapeless oatmeal-hued hemp shifts that looked like the robes of some strict religious order. Fashion and ethics were once considered mutually exclusive, but as environmental issues raise questions about manufacturing and production practices, and sourcing becomes an important factor for informed shoppers, a new breed of designers is bridging the gap between glamour and social conscience.
It comes as no surprise that Scandinavia, a paragon of equality, should be a major supporter of environmental and ethical fashion. Throughout the past decade, names such as Camilla Norrback, a Stockholm-based Finland-Swede designer who launched her Ecoluxury line in 2002, the Norwegian designer Leila Hafzi – in the vanguard of organic, ethical fashion since the late 90s – and Denmark’s leading eco-luxury label Noir have blazed a trail for up-and-coming designers. Each has chosen ethical work practices over cash, using organic or environment-certified materials. Norrback creates fashion-forward garments through sustainable production processes, while Hafzi goes for high glamour with a colourful collection in hand-painted silks, cashmere, nettle fibre and organic cotton.
In 2005, Leila Hafzi established the design and production company Nepal Productions, now a member of Norway’s Ethical Trading Initiative (IEH). However, as Hafzi admits, ‘Both eco and ethical production presents a lot of challenges. We do not have enough eco-friendly fabrics in Nepal to choose from, so we cannot provide fully eco collections yet.’ Tone Skårdal Tobiasson of Nordic Initiative, Clean and Ethical (NICE), agrees. ‘Many will say that ethics has to involve environmental issues and vice versa, but I hear of a lot of nuts-and-bolts cases where designers are forced to prioritise one or the other,’ he says. ‘There have been many attempts at doing guides to the labels that are more eco-friendly or ethical than others, but I think most will admit that they are working on some issues but have not tackled all, not by a long run.’ Under the auspice of the Nordic Fashion Association, the aim of NICE is to encourage both producers and consumers towards sustainable production and consumption.
Similarly, in southern Sweden designers have joined forces to create FRANK, a network focused on support for ethical and sustainable designers. Although each member of the collective of six independent clothing brands has its own manifesto, they are working together to tackle the many obstacles that face those who chose this difficult path. Former human-rights law students Kajsa Cappelen Holst and Paula Kermfors, for example, take a social and environmental stance in the production of the womenswear for their Righteous label. Garments are made from certified organic cotton and cashmere in carefully monitored production units in developing countries such as Uganda, Mauritius and Nepal, while Fellow Frank member Eka’s production is carried out in the Indian township of Auroville, an experimental community devoted to human unity. By supporting such initiatives, companies such as Righteous and Eka believe that this is a positive step toward the abolition of the sweatshops and child labour employed by some of the leading fashion brands. ‘We feel that people shouldn’t be restricted in their choice of style when they buy sustainable and ethical clothing,’ says Eka’s Gilly Seagrave. ‘The customer should want a piece because they love it, and our gift to them is to take care of the ethical issues, giving them a high-fashion wardrobe with a clear conscience.’
Vintage and recycled fashion has also been welcomed into the ethical fold. Finnish designer Taina Laaksonen of Trad customises vintage coats, jackets and suits that date back to the golden days of Tampere’s garment industry during the 20th century. Anja Hynynen creates made-to-order and unique pieces from vintage textiles and certified organic fabrics, including local handspun Swedish wool and angora yarn.
Developing sustainability further, Gothenburg-based Swedish brand Matilda Wendelboe recently presented the world’s first fully recyclable fashion collection. Using a process called Cradle to Cradle (C2C), designer Annika Matilda Wendelboe works with fabrics that are non-toxic and can either be composted or recycled. ‘As a producer, I feel a strong responsibility to avoid adding to the huge mountain of waste, which is why C2C is extremely important,’ she says. ‘By thinking full-circle and making products that can be reused without downgrading we can achieve cradle-to-cradle instead of cradle-to-grave products.’ She concludes: ‘My vision is a world where humans become a contributing part of all ecosystems, where we borrow, use and return, rather than to take, make, waste. If we design smart, we will produce no waste, which is good news for all of us!’